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Cthulhu is a cosmic entity created by horror author H. P. Lovecraft in 1926, first appearing in the short story "The Call of Cthulhu" when it was published in Weird Tales in 1928.
Cthulhu is one of the central Great Old Ones of H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. It is often cited for the extreme descriptions given of its hideous appearance, its gargantuan size, and the abject terror that it evokes. Cthulhu is often referred to in science fiction and fantasy circles as a tongue-in-cheek shorthand for extreme horror or evil.
After its first appearance in "The Call of Cthulhu", Cthulhu makes a few minor appearances in other of Lovecraft's works. August Derleth, a correspondent of Lovecraft's, used the creature's name to identify the system of lore employed by Lovecraft and his literary successors, the Cthulhu Mythos.
Spelling and PronunciationEdit
Cthulhu has also been spelled as Tulu, Clulu, Clooloo, Cthulu, Cighulu, Cathulu, Kutulu, Q’thulu, Ktulu, Kthulhut, Kulhu, Thu Thu, and in many other ways. It is often preceded by the epithet Great, Dead, or Dread.
Lovecraft transcribed the pronunciation of Cthulhu as "Khlûl'-hloo" (/kəˈθuːluː/). He said that "the first syllable [of Khlûl'-hloo is] pronounced gutturally and very thickly. The u is about like that in full; and the first syllable is not unlike klul in sound, hence the h represents the guttural thickness. S. T. Joshi points out, however, that Lovecraft gave several differing pronunciations on different occasions. According to Lovecraft, this is merely the closest that the human vocal apparatus can come to reproducing the syllables of an alien language. Long after Lovecraft's death, the pronunciation kə-THOO-loo (/kəˈθuːluː/) became common, and the game Call of Cthulhu endorsed it.
The Call of CthulhuEdit
The most detailed descriptions of Cthulhu in "The Call of Cthulhu" are based on statues of the creature. One, constructed by an artist after a series of baleful dreams, is said to have "yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature.... A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings." Another, recovered by police from a raid on a murderous cult, "represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind".
When the creature finally appears, the story says that the "thing cannot be described", but it is called "the green, sticky spawn of the stars", with "flabby claws" and an "awful squid-head with writhing feelers". The phrase "a mountain walked or stumbled" gives a sense of the creature's scale.
Cthulhu is depicted as having a worldwide cult centered in Arabia, with followers in regions as far-flung as Greenland and Louisiana. There are leaders of the cult "in the mountains of China" who are said to be immortal. Cthulhu is described by some of these cultists as the "great priest" of "the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky".
The cult is noted for chanting its horrid phrase or ritual: "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh C'thulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn", which translates as "In his house at R'lyeh dead C'thulhu waits dreaming". This is often shortened to "C'thulhu fhtagn", which might possibly mean "C'thulhu waits", "C'thulhu dreams", or "C'thulhu waits dreaming".
One cultist, known as Old Castro, provides the most elaborate information given in Lovecraft's fiction about Cthulhu. The Great Old Ones, according to Castro, had come from the stars to rule the world in ages past.
- "They were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape...but that shape was not made of matter. When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live. But although They no longer lived, They would never really die. They all lay in stone houses in Their great city of R'lyeh, preserved by the spells of mighty Cthulhu for a glorious resurrection when the stars and the earth might once more be ready for Them."
- ―Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu," p. 140.
Castro points to the "much-discussed couplet" from Abdul Alhazred's Necronomicon:
- That is not dead which can eternal lie.
- And with strange aeons even death may die.
Castro explains the role of the Cthulhu Cult: When the stars have come right for the Great Old Ones, "some force from outside must serve to liberate their bodies. The spells that preserved Them intact likewise prevented them from making an initial move". At the proper time,
- "the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from his tomb to revive His subjects and resume his rule of earth....Then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom."
- ―Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu," p. 141.
Castro reports that the Great Old Ones are telepathic and "knew all that was occurring in the universe". They were able to communicate with the first humans by "moulding their dreams", thus establishing the Cthulhu Cult, but after R'lyeh had sunk beneath the waves, "the deep waters, full of the one primal mystery through which not even thought can pass, had cut off the spectral intercourse".
Star-Spawn of CthulhuEdit
The Spawn of Cthulhu, or Cthulhi, have a physical similarity with Cthulhu himself, but are of far smaller size. This race arrived with him, but relatively little is known about them. On Earth they built the city R'lyeh, which later sank in the ocean, and where they still dwell with Cthulhu. A few are rumored to have escaped this incident, and can be found in hidden places on Earth.
In "At the Mountains of Madness" the "Spawn of Cthulhu" wage a great war against the Elder Things after arriving on Earth.
H. P. Lovecraft's initial short story, "The Call of Cthulhu", was published in Weird Tales in 1928 and established the character as a malevolent entity hibernating within an underwater city in the South Pacific called R'lyeh. The imprisoned Cthulhu is apparently the source of constant anxiety for mankind at a subconscious level, and also the subject of worship by a number of human religions (located several places worldwide, including New Zealand, Greenland, Louisiana, and the Chinese mountains) and other Lovecraftian monsters (called Deep Ones and Mi-Go). The short story asserts the premise that, while currently trapped, Cthulhu will eventually return. His worshipers chant "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" ("In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming").
Lovecraft conceived a detailed genealogy for Cthulhu (published as "Letter 617" in Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft IV) and made the character a central figure in corresponding literature. The short story "The Dunwich Horror" (1928) refers to Cthulhu, while "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1930) hints that one of his characters knows the creature's origins ("I learned whence Cthulhu first came, and why half the great temporary stars of history had flared forth."). The 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness refers to the "star-spawn of Cthulhu", who warred with another race called the Elder Things before the dawn of man.
August Derleth, a correspondent of Lovecraft, used the creature's name to identify the system of lore employed by Lovecraft and his literary successors: the "Cthulhu Mythos". In 1937, Derleth wrote the short story "The Return of Hastur", and proposed two groups of opposed cosmic entities:
- "... the Old or Ancient Ones, the Elder Gods, of cosmic good, and those of cosmic evil, bearing many names, and themselves of different groups, as if associated with the elements and yet transcending them: for there are the Water Beings, hidden in the depths; those of Air that are the primal lurkers beyond time; those of Earth, horrible animate survivors of distant eons."
- ―August Derleth, "The Return of Hastur", The Hastur Cycle, Robert M. Price, ed., p. 256.
According to Derleth's scheme, "Great Cthulhu is one of the Water Beings" and was engaged in an age-old arch-rivalry with a designated Air elemental, Hastur the Unspeakable, described as Cthulhu's "half-brother". Based on this framework, Derleth wrote a series of short stories published in Weird Tales 1944–1952 and collected as The Trail of Cthulhu, depicting the struggle of a Dr. Laban Shrewsbury and his associates against Cthulhu and his minions, and culminating, in "The Black Island" (1952), with the atomic bombing of R'lyeh, which Derleth has moved to the vicinity of Ponape. Derleth describes Cthulhu in that story as
- "a thing which was little more than a protoplasmic mass, from the body of which a thousand tentacles of every length and thickness flailed forth, from the head of which, constantly altering shape from an amorphous bulge to a simulacrum of a man's head, a single malevolent eye appeared."
- ―August Derleth, "The Black Island", The Cthulhu Cycle, Robert M. Price, ed., p. 83.
Derleth's interpretations are not universally accepted by enthusiasts of Lovecraft's work, and indeed are criticized by many for injecting a stereotypical conflict between equal forces of objective good and evil into Lovecraft's strictly amoral continuity.
Meanwhile, the character's influence also extended into recreational literature: games company TSR included an entire chapter on the Cthulhu mythos (including statistics for the character) in the first printing of Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook Deities & Demigods (1980). TSR, however, were unaware that Arkham House, who asserted copyright on almost all Lovecraft literature, had already licensed the Cthulhu property to the game company Chaosium. Although Chaosium stipulated that TSR could continue to use the material if each future edition featured a published credit to Chaosium, TSR refused and the material was removed from all subsequent editions. The character of Cthulhu also inspired many other creatures such as Robert E. Howard's own creation Yag Khosha, in the short story "Tower of the Elephant" - an early Conan tale.
Elsewhere in Lovecraft's fictionEdit
Cthulhu is mentioned elsewhere in Lovecraft's fiction, sometimes described in ways that appear to contradict information given in "The Call of Cthulhu". For example, rather than including Cthulhu among the Great Old Ones, a quotation from the Necronomicon in "The Dunwich Horror" says of the Old Ones, "Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly". But different Lovecraft stories and characters use the term "Old Ones" in widely different ways.
In At the Mountains of Madness, for example, the Old Ones are a species of extraterrestrials, also known as Elder Things, who were at war with Cthulhu and his relatives or allies. Human explorers in Antarctica discover an ancient city of the Elder Things and puzzle out a history from sculptural records:
- "With the upheaval of new land in the South Pacific tremendous events began.... Another race--a land race of beings shaped like octopi and probably corresponding to the fabulous pre-human spawn of Cthulhu--soon began filtering down from cosmic infinity and precipitated a monstrous war which for a time drove the Old Ones wholly back to the sea.... Later peace was made, and the new lands were given to the Cthulhu spawn whilst the Old Ones held the sea and the older lands.... [T]he antarctic remained the centre of the Old Ones' civilization, and all the discoverable cities built there by the Cthulhu spawn were blotted out. Then suddenly the lands of the Pacific sank again, taking with them the frightful stone city of R'lyeh and all the cosmic octopi, so that the Old Ones were once again supreme on the planet...."
- ―Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness, in At the Mountains of Madness, p. 66.
The narrator of At the Mountains of Madness also notes that "the Cthulhu spawn... seem to have been composed of matter more widely different from that which we know than was the substance of the Antarctic Old Ones. They were able to undergo transformations and reintegrations impossible for their adversaries, and seem therefore to have originally come from even remoter gulfs of cosmic space.... The first sources of the other beings can only be guessed at with bated breath". He notes, however, that "the Old Ones might have invented a cosmic framework to account for their occasional defeats". Other stories have the Elder Things' enemies repeat this cosmic framework.
In "The Whisperer in Darkness", for example, one character refers to "the fearful myths antedating the coming of man to the earth - the Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu cycles - which are hinted at in the Necronomicon". That story suggests that Cthulhu is one of the entities worshiped by the alien Mi-Go race, and repeats the Elder Things' claim that the Mi-Go share his unknown material compositions. Cthulhu's advent is also connected, in some unknown fashion, with supernovae: "I learned whence Cthulhu first came, and why half the great temporary stars of history had flared forth". The story mentions in passing that some humans call the Mi-Go "the old ones".
"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" establishes that Cthulhu is also worshiped by the nonhuman creatures known as Deep Ones.
According to correspondence between Lovecraft and fellow author James F. Morton, Cthulhu's parent is the deity Nug, itself the offspring of Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath. Lovecraft includes a fanciful family tree in which he himself descends from Cthulhu via Shaurash-ho, Yogash the Ghoul, K'baa the Serpent, and Ghoth the Burrower.
Cthulhu has served as direct inspiration for many modern artists and sculptors. Prominent artists that produced renderings of this creature include Paul Carrick, Stephen Hickman, Kevin Evans, Dave Carson, Francois Launet and Ursula Vernon.
Multiple sculptural depictions of Cthulhu exist, one of the most noteworthy being Stephen Hickman's Cthulhu Statue which has been featured in the Spectrum annual and is exhibited in display cabinets in the John Hay Library of Brown University of Providence. This statue of Cthulhu often serves as a separate object of inspiration for many works, most recent of which are the Cthulhu Worshiper Amulets manufactured by a Russian jeweler. For some time, replicas of Hickman's Cthulhu Statuette were produced by Bowen Designs.